BUENA VISTA, Mexico -- With the shout, "Coming through!" Dennis Spike embarked on one of his patented "Baja sleigh rides," over a glassy sea glimmering with life, but with the stench of death filling the air.
The scene was as surreal as it was comical. A virtual armada of cruisers and skiffs had converged around the rotting carcass of a whale that had been discovered floating offshore a few days earlier.
Beneath the whale were thousands of dorado, Baja California's most colorful and acrobatic game fish, which love to congregate under floating objects, particularly those so large and blubbery, and in deep decay. And there was Spike, atop his white plastic kayak, following the lead of a fish he had hooked moments earlier, being pulled swiftly through an obstacle course of boats that actually belong so far out at sea.
It soon became clear, however, that Spike and his four companions, all from Southern California, were not in over their heads, after all. They were very much in their element.
Spike soon had alongside his vessel a radiant bull dorado, flashing neon colors of gold and green. It was gaffed and quickly picked up by the crew of the cruiser, or mother ship, that delivered the fishermen and their vessels to the whale.
Greg Chasten then matched that with a fish just as big, one weighing about 35 pounds and measuring half as long as his kayak. Howard Rose and Brian Campbell were next, taking sleigh rides in opposite directions, Rose landing his fish and Campbell losing his.
What was remarkable about this was that the bite had been excruciatingly slow for the fishermen aboard the bigger boats, presumably because there had been so much fishing pressure, and so much boat noise, in recent days.
Only the kayakers were hooking up. And while the other fishermen were amused early on, they were soon cursing under their breaths at the sight of another dorado-powered kayaker whizzing by, following the bend in his rod.
"This is what we do," Spike said, after the fifth and final fish—the largest was a 42-pounder—had been pulled aboard the mother ship. "The kayaks give us stealth and mobility, which they don't have. Plus, we're so low that we're able to better present the bait [in this case live sardines], and we almost always out-fish the bigger boats."
The Kayak Advantage
Spike, 43, is one of kayak-fishing's pioneers. A former chiropractor and a trained tobacconist, he owns Coastal Kayak Fishing (http://www.kayakfishing.com/) in Reseda. It features equipment sales, discussion boards and guided trips, including occasional excursions out of Rancho Leonero Resort in Baja's East Cape region.
"This is absolute nirvana for the kayak fisherman," Spike said of the East Cape, because of the abundance of large and powerful game fish both offshore and inshore.
But the kayaks, he added, have the same advantages in Southland waters.
Spike made his first trip off Malibu 14 years ago, with Rose, his cousin and a producer who has a home in the area.
"I caught a 25-pound halibut and we caught a slew of calico bass, all released, and from there I was hooked," Spike said.
He fished 150 days that year, at an average cost of $7 to $10 a day, "including our fuel to get there, our food and our bait and tackle." A daily trip on a half-day boat, with all factors considered, can cost three times that.
The kayak-fishing tackle is the same stuff you'd take on a party boat—conventional reels spooled with 10- to 30-pound test, depending on the fish being targeted, and standard hooks and lures.
The bait is caught with a light-line multi-hook gangion and stored in plastic bait wells dragged alongside the kayaks.
The kayaks are open, sit-on-top vessels, some with hatches that serve as fish-storage wells. They're outfitted with rod holders behind the seats, and are sturdy enough so that catching 50- or even 100-pound fish is within the realm of possibility. A kayak thus outfitted sells for about $1,000.
Spike's most memorable experience north of the border was during the spring of 2000. Squid had flooded into an area along the coast in northern Malibu, and with them came an enormous school of predatory white seabass.
Spike and Campbell were first on the scene. Spike was slow-trolling a live sardine; Campbell was pulling a lure. Spike hooked up first.
"My rod went bendo, I set the hook, put my feet back up on the deck of the kayak, because I had been sitting with my feet over the side, and I went for a 1,000-yard sleigh ride," he said. "After four tremendous runs, the fish came to the rail and it was a 75-pound white seabass, two inches short of five feet, 32 inches around. The fight was 35-40 minutes.
"[Campbell], while following me, got hooked up and landed a 58-pound white seabass. The next 10 weeks produced a bite that, while it was reported, was never appreciated by anyone but us on our kayaks. I went on to catch six over 60 pounds, five over 50 and a handful of 40s, 30s and 20s. It was the most epic white seabass bite we had ever seen."
Of the potential danger posed by sharks, while sitting so precariously on kayaks, Spike said there is only one to be concerned about—the great white, which has yet to cause any problems.
Off Malibu, most of the run-ins have been with thresher sharks, which have long, slashing tails but small bodies and very small mouths.
"I've caught dozens of threshers that have approached the 200-pound mark," Spike said. "They're so tired after the fight that you can get them right up to the kayak and pop the hook out with a pair of pliers."
East Cape Connection
Through a cooperative agreement with John Ireland, owner of Rancho Leonero Resort (http://www.rancholeonero.com/), Spike conducts seasonal guided trips to the East Cape, an area many consider superior to even the famed Cabo San Lucas, at Land's End 75 miles to the south.
Rancho Leonero, like the half-dozen other nearby resorts, is strictly a fishing destination, though snorkeling and diving are popular side trips.
The run to the fishing grounds can be as short as five minutes and is rarely longer than an hour, as a gaping underwater canyon, which serves as a thoroughfare for such blue-water game fish as marlin, sailfish and tuna, runs conveniently close to the beach.
For kayakers, exotics such as dorado and tuna can sometimes be reached simply by paddling a mile or so off the beach, although the most popular inshore species are roosterfish, jack crevalle, snapper and pompano.
The inshore fishing is spectacular here as these ferocious predators herd the smaller baitfish into areas along the beach, and sometimes even onto the beach itself.
Ireland is among hotel owners hoping to capitalize on the increasing popularity of kayak fishing. He bought a small fleet seven years ago and rents them mostly to those seeking a break from the long and sometimes monotonous days aboard a cruiser or panga.
The break can be refreshing as well as rewarding, especially if it involves fishing with an expert such as Spike.
"Things happen around you when you're fishing on a kayak that don't happen on boats," he said. "You're part of the fishery instead of something intruding into it.
"I've been here with hundreds of manta rays jumping all around me. We've seen marlin free jumping. We've had entire schools of tuna blow through us. We've paddled along when the fish weren't biting, but we've had schools of 50- and 60-pound dorado and jacks swimming together in massive schools right by us. That's an experience enough to make your day."
For his clients, snappers and jacks are usually available to some degree, but they're extremely powerful and can be difficult to land as they run for structure after feeling the sting of the hook.
Roosterfish are bigger and even stronger and, while they seldom run for the rocks, they've been known to spool even the largest of reels.
Spike's most popular season down here is the steamy month of August, when large schools of yellowfin tuna enter the Sea of Cortez. Because the best fishing often takes place well offshore, and because the tuna can weigh as much as 100 pounds, the mother ship comes in particularly handy.
"The mother ship cuts down on our paddling time," Spike said. "It can shuttle us to an area, supply us with live bait and drop off food and drinks while we're fishing. It can also collect our fish and ice them down as soon as possible, because one of the most popular things on our trips is, every night on the hotel patio, having some type of sashimi."
The Elusive Marlin
A new day has dawned and up with the glowing red sun are Spike and his companions, preparing for another run to the fishing grounds, this time with hopes of battling the mighty marlin.
It's an ambitious, if not foolish plan, as an angry marlin could easily skewer a fisherman sitting so vulnerably atop a kayak. But the feat has been accomplished by a few, without anyone being skewered, and Spike is hoping to join the club.
The day begins with an hour-long run south, via mother ship, to Bahia Los Frailes, beyond a towering, jagged headland that forms the easternmost point on the peninsula. The group hopes to warm up with a few large roosters or jacks, but the fish don't cooperate.
The kayaks are stored on the bow and the run is made offshore, through an azure sea aflutter with flying fish and teeming with playful dolphins. Conditions are prime, but there are no signs of marlin. An hour passes, then another.
Spike remains optimistic, and reflects to the time he caught his lone billfish on a kayak, an estimated 120-pound sailfish in the fall of 2000. The fish did lots of jumping, but offered little in the way of a sleigh ride.
"The last jump was only six feet off my left shoulder," Spike said. "And that's when I realized that I could have been speared and killed by this fish."
He has no such worries on this increasingly blustery day.
The search for marlin is called off and the captain has set a course for the calmer inner waters, from which Campbell will pluck the catch of the day, a 10-pound snapper that will serve as dinner back at the hotel.